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Some thoughts on gender

Updated: Sep 21, 2023

by Lye Tuck-Po
20 September 2023

Woman dragging the hose for irrigation purposes. Cambodia, 2006
Dragging the hose for irrigation purposes. Cambodia, 2006
This is a photo of my host mother Yi in Cambodia, photographed while she was working in her maize field (2006). The Cambodian women I knew worked very hard, and were extremely creative at looking for ways to supplement their income.
For my host family, maize was their major source of cash income. They grew several varieties of rice as well, but mainly kept the rice for home consumption or ritual offerings.
Observers often note that Cambodian women enjoy relatively high status (e.g. Andaya 2006); I would concur. Women not only worked damned hard; they were also household managers who control all the money that flows in. I remember asking my field assistant what he was going to do with his salary: "send it to my mother!" was his answer.
Couple working in the maize field, Cambodia, 2006
Couple working in the maize field, Cambodia, 2006
But I also admired my host father (above picture). In many ways, the couple worked as a team, his-and-her activities in balance, complementing each other.
*** I have to shake my head at the photo - what a terrible photographer I was. What was in my mind — why the slanted framing???
Walking in the forest. Batek at Yong, 2010
Walking in the forest. Batek at Yong, 2010
This is a photo of na'Kesok walking in the forest—she's probably my best Batek friend. Batek women, similarly, have high status—the society is sexually and politically egalitarian— and women have a strong sense of self. Very energetic and influential; not at all passive. Accounts of the impacts of development frequently make this point: that development, with its promotion of modernist ideals of “family”, may jeopardize rather than improve the status of women. There are many structural ways in which this is done—for example, income-generation opportunities for women tend to be more limiting than for men; or men rather than women are listed as household “heads” thus concentrating “wealth” (such as it is) in the hands of male household members, and so on.
Senior Penan women exchanging news: the one on the right has been away for some time. Long Jek, Sarawak, 2009
Senior Penan women exchanging news: the one on the right has been away for some time. Long Jek, Sarawak, 2009
Penan grandmother and granddaughter: the granddaughter spent most of her time in another location and has come back to see the old folks. Long Wat, Sarawak, 2009
Penan grandmother and granddaughter: the granddaughter spent most of her time in another location and has come back to see the old folks. Long Wat, Sarawak, 2009

Among Penan, men do most of the heavy work (for example, see here) but women's work is also integral to household economies (for example, in their craftwork, women do most of the weaving). However, money frequently moves from men to men, and women may not have full control over how incomes are distributed. Although Penan are relatively egalitarian as well, there are inherent asymmetries in the division of labour. Development projects may accentuate rather than erase these divisions.
** In contrast to how they were reported earlier (e.g. Brosius 1987), Penan women have become more mobile. The young woman in the photo above, for example, had gone visiting relatives in several places quite far from her home. I think I met several women who had gone as far as Kuching. How mobility affects gender status: having the freedom, for example, to search out opportunities, then bringing their new insights back to the longhouse.
Boys, boys, boys. Their parents were off-camera; we were. talking when the boys came by. Penan community, Long Wat, Sarawak, 2009
Boys, boys, boys. Their parents were off-camera; we were. talking when the boys came by. Penan community, Long Wat, Sarawak, 2009
Another aspect of gender relations that everybody wants to know about is childcare. In all the places that I've worked in, childcare is less the exclusive domain of women than a shared responsibility. Physical and evolutionary anthropologists call this “cooperative breeding” (e.g. Hrdy 2005). It's a lot less salacious than the term suggests: it refers to a situation where childcare is a “cooperative” endeavour (though let's not forget that conflicts and quarrels exist too), and responsibilities are shared among several members of the children's immediate kin.
Primarily (and especially when children are breastfed for long periods), mothers are the main caregivers in infancy and much of early childhood. But, as soon as is feasible, fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and older siblings will do their part as well. For example, weaning is a traumatic time for young children. Among the Batek, this is the time when the children will reach out for their fathers, although bonding will have been going on all along. Some Batek children become extremely attached to their grandparents, especially their grandmothers.
I don't think this is much of an exotic curiosity — I myself was raised in an extended household. I remember as a child (maybe I was 7 or 8 at the time), I found it difficult to describe my “family” in school, with so many people (all going by different kin terms) looking after me at any point in time. What varies from society to society is “who” is doing more of what. I.e., in some societies grandmothers are the main secondary caregivers while in others, it is the father; in some places older siblings (especially girls) do a lot of babysitting and in others they never do. This is not to claim that “single-parenthood” doesn't exist: one parent may die young; there may be a lot of separations or divorces in the society; and so on. But in general, the image of mothers as “the hand that rocks the cradle” (note singular construction) is perhaps mythical and ideological rather than based on observed reality. Originally posted on my blog on 10/28/2010. Slightly edited.
References:
Andaya, Barbara Watson. 2006. The flaming womb: repositioning women in early modern Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press.
Brosius, J. Peter. 1987. The Penan of the Belaga District: considerations for development.
Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 2005. Comes the child before man: how cooperative breeding and prolonged postweaning dependence shaped human potential. In Hunter-gatherer childhoods: evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives, edited by Barry S. Hewlett and Michael E. Lamb. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.


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